The Tale of Balen by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Shone strange as fate Morgause
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But even as earth when dawn takes flight And beats her wings of dewy light Full in the faltering face of night, His soul awoke to claim by right The life and death of deed and doom, When once before the king there came A maiden clad with grief and shame And anguish burning her like flame That feeds on flowers in bloom.
Beneath a royal mantle, fair With goodly work of lustrous vair, Girt fast against her side she bare A sword whose weight bade all men there Quail to behold her face again. Save of a passing perfect knight Not great alone in force and fight It might not be for any might Drawn forth, and end her pain.
So said she: then King Arthur spake: "Albeit indeed I dare not take Such praise on me, for knighthood's sake And love of ladies will I make Assay if better none may be." By girdle and by sheath he caught The sheathed and girded sword, and wrought With strength whose force availed him nought To save and set her free.
Again she spake: "No need to set The might that man has matched not yet Against it: he whose hand shall get Grace to release the bonds that fret My bosom and my girdlestead With little strain of strength or strife Shall bring me as from death to life And win to sister or to wife Fame that outlives men dead."
Then bade the king his knights assay This mystery that before him lay And mocked his might of manhood. "Nay," Quoth she, "the man that takes away This burden laid on me must be A knight of record clean and fair As sunlight and the flowerful air, By sire and mother born to bear A name to shame not me."
Then forth strode Launcelot, and laid The mighty-moulded hand that made Strong knights reel back like birds affrayed By storm that smote them as they strayed Against the hilt that yielded not. Then Tristram, bright and sad and kind As one that bore in noble mind Love that made light as darkness blind, Fared even as Launcelot.
Then Lamoracke, with hardier cheer, As one that held all hope and fear Wherethrough the spirit of man may steer In life and death less dark or dear, Laid hand thereon, and fared as they. With half a smile his hand he drew Back from the spell-bound thing, and threw With half a glance his heart anew Toward no such blameless may.
Between Iseult and Guenevere Sat one of name as high to hear, But darklier doomed than they whose cheer Foreshowed not yet the deadlier year That bids the queenliest head bow down, The queen Morgause of Orkney: they With scarce a flash of the eye could say The very word of dawn, when day Gives earth and heaven their crown.
But bright and dark as night or noon And lowering as a storm-flushed moon When clouds and thwarting winds distune The music of the midnight, soon To die from darkening star to star And leave a silence in the skies That yearns till dawn find voice and rise, Shone strange as fate Morgause, with eyes That dwelt on days afar.
A glance that shot on Lamoracke As from a storm-cloud bright and black. Fire swift and blind as death's own track Turned fleet as flame on Arthur back From him whose hand forsook the hilt: And one in blood and one in sin Their hearts caught fire of pain within And knew no goal for them to win But death that guerdons guilt.
Then Gawain, sweet of soul and gay As April ere he dreams of May, Strove, and prevailed not: then Sir Kay, The snake-souled envier, vile as they That fawn and foam and lurk and lie, Sire of the bastard band whose brood Was alway found at servile feud With honour, faint and false and lewd, Scarce grasped and put it by.